By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Friday rejected a charge by Syria that the U.S. ambassador to Damascus had sought to incite protests in the tense city of Hama, saying the American envoy was welcomed with flowers and olive branches by peaceful civilians seeking political change.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford arrived in Hama on Thursday and drove back the next day to the city center before tens of thousands of people staged new demonstrations demanding the downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"When he got into the city the car was immediately surrounded by friendly protesters who were putting flowers on the windshields, they were putting olive branches on the car, they were chanting 'down with the regime,'" said State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland.
Ford decided not to stay so as "not to become the story himself" and left before the protests got under way, she said.
Still, Ford's visit was unusual, as foreign ambassadors normally avoid even the perception they are interfering in a host country's internal affairs.
Separately, the State Department said it had called in the Syrian ambassador to Washington after receiving reports that Syrian diplomats had conducted surveillance of people protesting in the United States.
Assistant Secretary of State Eric Boswell summoned Ambassador Imad Mustapha on Wednesday after reports of the alleged surveillance, the State Department said on Friday.
It said it is also investigating reports that the Syrian government has sought retribution against Syrian family members for the actions of their relatives protesting in the United States.
"The United States Government takes very seriously reports of any foreign government actions attempting to intimidate individuals in the United States," the State Department said in a statement.
Syria had accused the U.S. ambassador of seeking to fan the protests, saying he did not have clearance for the trip, which it called "clear evidence of the United States' involvement in current events in Syria and its attempt to incite an escalation in the situation."
"Absolute rubbish," said Nuland. "The reason for his visit was to stand in solidarity with the right of the Syrian people to demonstrate peacefully."
She said the U.S. embassy had informed Syria's Defense Ministry before Ford's trip and he had passed through Syrian checkpoints along the way.
Ford's trip coincided with a visit to Hama by the French ambassador and Nuland said these had not been coordinated.
Ford spoke with more than a dozen Hama residents and visited a hospital treating people injured in earlier confrontations between protesters and Syrian security forces.
Hama has seen some of the biggest demonstrations against Assad, who sent security forces back into the city and ringed it with tanks this week. Hama was the site of a brutal 1982 crackdown by Assad's father on an Islamic-inspired uprising.
U.S. President Barack Obama has reacted warily to the protests in Syria, part of a wave of pro-democracy unrest across the Arab world that toppled rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and led to NATO involvement in a civil war in Libya.
Obama has said Assad must either lead reforms in Syria or get out of the way and Ford's visit to Hama marked a symbolic strengthening of U.S. support for the goals and methods of the peaceful demonstrators.
"The Syrian government has claimed many things. It has claimed there are foreign instigators behind what is going on in their country ... that is not what he (Ford) witnessed. He witnessed average Syrians asking for change," said Nuland.
Ford's trip may also send a message to U.S. critics of Obama's policy on Syria, who have questioned the value of maintaining an ambassador in Damascus as Assad's government pushes forward with its crackdown.
The State Department has argued that Ford, who took up his post in Damascus in January after a more than five year break in full U.S. diplomatic representation there, can convey U.S. concerns directly to Syria's top leadership although he has not met Assad since the protests began.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)